Tough going for media in Kashmir

IN Media Freedom | 26/11/2010
Accessing news sites has become an ordeal and gaining authentic information on the disturbances that break out,virtually impossible. Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir have become targets of selective ad placements and restrictions on movement,
a FACT FINDING TEAM discovered.
Since June this year the Kashmir valley has been torn by mass protests which have been met with force. Curfews and closures have been frequent. No less than 111 deaths, largely of those between the ages of 8 and 25, have been registered. Many other protesters and passers-by have been injured. An independent fact-finding team comprising academic BELA BHATIA, advocate VRINDA GROVER, journalist SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN and activist RAVI HEMADRI of The Other Media, went to the valley in October to probe the violence. Roughly 25 days were put in to the fact-finding exercise. The team met the families of almost 40 persons who had been killed and several individuals who had suffered serious injuries. The team worked out of Srinagar, and visited villages and towns in five of the valley’s ten districts: Baramulla in the north (Sopore and Baramulla tehsils); Anantnag (Bijbehara and Anantnag tehsils) and Pulwama (Pulwama tehsil) in the south; Badgam in the west (Chadura and Badgam tehsils) and Srinagar itself. Separate sessions were held with journalists and media practitioners, university teachers and students, doctors, lawyers and activists besides officials in the police headquarters and the civil administration. This is third in the series of reports on the team’s findings.
 
Blaming the Messenger:
 
Junctures of civil unrest in Kashmir invariably call forth the reflexive attitude of blaming the messenger, making any form of restraint on the valley’s journalists a perfectly permissible stratagem. Since the upsurge in unrest in June, journalists claim, their situation has deteriorated. Accessing news sites has now become an ordeal and gaining authentic information on the disturbances that break out with alarming regularity, virtually impossible. Violence has reduced since the visit of the all party parliamentary delegation in September and journalists may be more assured now that they can travel to work and back without serious hindrance but they continue to suffer enormous restraints.
 
 
Greater Kashmir and Rising Kashmir have become targets of selective ad placements and restrictions on movement. Newspapers have been shut for 30 days since mid-June. The travails for journalists became particularly grim from about July 7, when after several years the Indian army was deployed in the streets of Kashmir. A notification by the state government and local authorities at the time extended curfew to cover the movement of all civilians, and word was put out that press passes would no longer be honoured. Photographers and news cameramen in Srinagar were assaulted as they sought to record the day’s events. Some had their professional equipment confiscated by security agencies. Media identity cards were a scant protection against the easily roused rage of the security forces.
 
 
These incidents followed similar occurrences the preceding day, when at least 12 photographers working for local, national and international media were assaulted in Srinagar and suffered injuries of various degrees of seriousness, as security forces sought to restrain them. As the photo-journalists and news cameramen were attacked, senior police officers were heard remarking that without media attention the demonstrations would soon die out.
 
 
On July 2, authorities in Jammu sealed the premises of three publications alleging that their reports tended to aggravate tensions between religious communities. The following day, copies of Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Uzma, the leading newspapers in English and Urdu in the Kashmir valley, were seized as they were readied for distribution. All Kashmir’s media personnel were confined to their homes for several days following the entry of the Indian army. A few days into this round of closures in the valley, the Kashmir Press Guild – a platform of the most senior journalists in the region – issued a statement deprecating the situation in which local journalists were confined to their homes while media personnel flying in from Delhi were afforded armed protection and allowed considerable freedom of movement. It was as if the story of Kashmir – if at all it were to be told – could only be entrusted to the narrative skills of journalists enjoying the stamp of official approval.
 
 
On July 9, when restrictions were at their peak, the state government seemed to relent marginally. Journalists in Srinagar were given a telephonic assurance that they would be provided fresh curfew passes to replace the ones invalidated after the army deployment. As senior journalist Riyaz Masroor set off from his home in the Alucha Bagh neighbourhood of Srinagar, to collect the fresh curfew pass, he was stopped at a police checkpoint on the main thoroughfare near his home and attacked with heavy batons and forced to return home with injuries to his hip and right wrist. On August 14 and again on September 28, a senior journalist now working with India’s largest news agency, the Press Trust of India, had his curfew pass confiscated. No reasons were given and it was made abundantly clear to him that he was not entitled to ask for any. On October 1, Merajuddin and Umar Meraj of the Associated Press TV news service, and Mufti Islah and Shakeel-ur Rahman of CNN-IBN, were assaulted by security forces while on their way to the state legislative assembly building in Srinagar. The incident began with a heated argument over the police insistence that they would not allow journalists to pass, even if they held curfew passes. Merajuddin, whose documentation remains one of the richest visual records of Kashmir’s years of insurgency, suffered a serious injury to his neck and had to be hospitalised.
 
 
Through fifteen days in September, few newspapers were printed in Srinagar because journalists and print workers could not reach their offices. Those who made the effort and succeeded on any one day were confined within their workplaces indefinitely. Among the few newspapers published, most found distribution channels blocked, as delivery vehicles were detained at the Mirgund and Kotibagh checkpoints just outside Srinagar. On September 30, all copies of Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Uzma and Buland Kashmir were seized from points of production in Srinagar city and taken to local police stations. The following day, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, informed the state assembly that he had not issued any order for the seizure of the newspapers, though the police had the authority to examine content prior to publication.
 
 
Journalists in Srinagar hesitate to use the term “discrimination”, but they have reason to believe that an increasing degree of arbitrariness has crept into the allocation of government advertising to newspapers, those seen as being amenable getting more of it. Jammu newspapers, with Rs 3.44 crore worth government advertising, showed that they were valued more than Srinagar newspapers which got only Rs 1 crore worth advertising. Three leading newspapers published from Srinagar– Rising Kashmir, Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Uzma – believe that they have been unfairly deprived of government advertising, and have had to enforce stringent curbs on their spending.
 
 
Daily movement for news gatherers has become an ordeal. Illustratively, text messaging (or SMS)through the state’s mobile telephone network has been suspended with effect from June. Thisfinal crackdown on a service that Kashmir’s journalists had begun to use as a vital newsgathering facility came after a rather long prelude. In June 2009, when the valley witnessedlarge-scale civil disturbances over the suspected rape and murder of two women in thesouthern orchard town of Shopian, bulk text messages, which were a news source that mediaorganisations in Srinagar could tap in the more remote districts where theyhad no presence, were banned. This effectively put out of work newsmen in these districtswho were able to generate a modest, though significant, revenue stream for themselvesthrough the provision of news items to Srinagar’s newspapers.
 
 
In April this year, well before mass protests became a daily occurrence, India’s central government ordered telecom companies in Kashmir to suspend text messaging for all subscribers of post-paid cellular telephone services. Subscribers using the pre-paid facility were to be allowed no more than ten such messages a day. This measure ostensibly was taken in response to a request from state security and intelligence agencies in Kashmir.
 
 
It soon became evident that serious miscommunications about communication services are a regular feature of Kashmir’s policy landscape, when the state government shortly afterwards went on record with a denial of any such request. Far from calling for a ban on all text messaging, the state government, it emerged, had only requested that bulk messages be proscribed, since these had been identified by security agencies as a source of destabilizing and disruptive rumours. This was merely the reiteration of a ban decreed during the Shopian disturbances, though over time, it had begun to be breached in some measure. The ban on text messaging was revoked within a day, leaving the prohibition on bulk messages in place. In June though, with the protests registering a sharp upward spiral, the state government ordered a complete ban on text messaging services. This prohibition remains in place. Voice telephone services are subject to frequent and unexplained disruption, especially in the northern Kashmir region. These restrictions are often introduced in response to imagined security anxieties such as Independence Day when mobile telephone and internet services were suspended over the entire valley for at least six hours.
 
 
Kashmir’s numerous TV channels were a major source of local news and had an especially vital role when civic security was badly disrupted and few could feel sure of what lay in store if they ventured out of home. That facility was effectively ended in June 2009 when the state government asked local cable TV channels to suspend news broadcasts. This diktat was partly diluted a month later, when the channels were allowed to air the 15 minutes of news permitted under their rules of registration. All channels were also forced to broadcast their news at 8 p.m. Editors and owners of channels were summoned early in June 2009 and were told to “behave properly”. Several were told that their fiduciary relationship with secessionist political formations was well known, and that the dossiers available with state intelligence agencies provided ample grounds for their prosecution.
 
 
When the violence following the Iranian Channels broadcast on September 13 led to the death of 20 and injury to 200, the channel was taken off cable TV operators’ menu. Concurrently local channels were told to suspend all news broadcasts. One news channel representative told this team: “None of the local channels cover any news and the national channels do not cover Kashmir.”
 
 
Despite frequent disruptions, the internet has become the principal mode of publicity. Transmission bandwidths are small and the volumes of data that can be transacted are limited but information regarding protest calendars being charted by the leadership of Kashmir’s Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (Movement for Freedom) does get out. Social networking sites are often used by journalists and Facebook has attracted security agencies’ attention. One user, Faizan Samad, was arrested in August for allegedly posting material that maligned the armed forces. He was released shortly afterwards. Another Facebook user, Mufti Wajid Yaqoob, was arrested in the south Kashmir town of Shopian after being held responsible for organising protest demonstrations through his network of friends on the site.
 

In the face of these hurdles journalists here have organized themselves under the Kashmir Press Guild and the Kashmir Press Association. Following complaints filed by three newspapers from Srinagar and the efforts of Kashmiri journalists based in Delhi, the Press Council of India (PCI) on August 4, issued notice asking the state government to explain the restrictions imposed on the media. Journalists’ bodies based in Delhi have also stepped in with support. The Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) has been particularly vocal, with a statement by its executive committee in September, sharply deprecating the “undeclared ban on newspapers in Kashmir”. The Editors’ Guild of India and Press Club of India have also shown solidarity. It has often been the case that journalists in the country’s major media organizations have been indifferent to the travails of colleagues in outlying parts of the country. For various historic reasons Kashmir has not suffered from this, nevertheless the situation under which journalists in the state work, continues to one that does not allow for free gathe

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